Sunday, March 1, 2020

Sunday Reading

Biden Finds His Voice in South Carolina — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

Joe Biden has long said that South Carolina would prove to be the electoral firewall in his bid for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, and it turned out he was right. As the votes came in on Saturday night from across the Palmetto State, it quickly became clear that the former Vice-President had scored a blowout victory in the most populous and most diverse state to vote so far in this primary season.

With ninety-nine per cent of the votes counted, Biden had about forty-eight per cent of the total. He was running twenty-eight percentage points ahead of Bernie Sanders and thirty-seven percentage points ahead of Tom Steyer, who subsequently announced that he was giving up his Presidential campaign. The other candidates came in nowhere.

Among black voters, who made up more than half of the primary electorate, Biden’s margin of victory was even larger. According to an exit poll carried out by Edison Media Research for a national consortium of news outlets, sixty-one per cent of African-American voters had voted for him versus seventeen per cent for Sanders and thirteen per cent for Steyer.

Biden appeared to have won every county in the state. The exit poll suggested that he won the white vote, the college-degree vote, the non-college-degree vote, and every age demographic except seventeen- to twenty-nine-year-olds. According to the poll, he even finished thirteen points ahead of Sanders among voters who identified themselves as very liberal.

Of course, there is a reason that Biden declared South Carolina as his firewall: he has close ties to some of the state’s political leaders, including James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, who endorsed him on Wednesday, and its demographics are favorable to him. But, as recently as this past week, opinion polls had shown Sanders closing to within four or five points of Biden, and the Vermont senator had predicted that he would pull off a come-from-behind win. If that had happened, Biden’s campaign would have been sunk. By the time the former Vice-President took the stage, in Columbia, shortly before 9 P.M. on Saturday night, however, he was assured of a sweeping victory.

At least in this campaign, it is an understatement to say that Biden hasn’t been noted for his oratory. But, as he demonstrated at the 2012 Democratic convention, he is capable of giving a good speech on a big occasion, and this was arguably the biggest of his political career. With his campaign running out of money, Biden’s South Carolina win was a rare opportunity to address the Democratic electorate at large before Tuesday, when fourteen more states will vote, including California, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia.

He began in predictable fashion, hailing “my buddy Jim Clyburn” and casting himself as the comeback kid. “For all those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” he declared. From there, the speech became more pointed, more strategic, and more emotive. Biden’s advisers are well aware that winning one state won’t be enough to stop Sanders, especially if the Vermont senator scores big victories on Tuesday in delegate-rich California and Texas, where the polls show him in the lead. The immediate goals for the Biden campaign are twofold: to cement Biden’s place as the only viable alternative to Sanders and to limit the Vermont senator’s lead in the delegate count by persuading enough Democrats that a Sanders candidacy would be an electoral disaster for the entire Party, not just its hopes of driving Donald Trump out of the White House. “The decisions Democrats make all across America in the next few days will determine what this party stands for, what we believe, and what we’ll get done,” Biden said. “If the Democrats nominate me, I believe we can defeat Donald Trump, keep Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives as Speaker, and take the U.S. Senate.”

Although he didn’t mention Sanders by name, he cast doubt on his electability, his policies, his ideology, and his loyalty to the Democratic Party. “If the Democrats want a nominee who is a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, then join us,” he declared. Mocking one of Sanders’s slogans, he went on, “Most Americans don’t want the promise of revolution. They want more than promises. They want results.” Biden also depicted Sanders as a divisive figure. At one point, he even compared him to Donald Trump, or, at least, he compared the impact of the Sanders movement on the Democratic Party to what the Trump movement did to the G.O.P. “We have to beat Donald Trump and the Republican Party,” Biden said. “But here’s the deal: we can’t become like them . . . We can’t have a never-ending war.”

That was the political pitch, but Biden also sounded a more personal note about the need for healing the soul of the country after the Trump Presidency. He recalled how, in June, 2015, shortly after his son Beau died of cancer, he and his wife, Jill, attended Sunday service at the Emanuel A.M.E. church, where a young white supremacist had recently gunned down nine parishioners. “We left here, having arrived in overwhelming pain, thinking we can do this, we’d get through this,” Biden said. Then, with the raucous crowd having fallen silent, he brought up Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Clyburn had mentioned in his introduction, saying, “This multi-ethnic country we call our democracy, America, it can’t survive unless we focus on our goodness.”

On the page, it reads like a somewhat awkward transition, but Biden knew exactly where he was going. “We can build a more perfect union, because the American people in the last three and a half years have seen the alternative,” he went on. “No, I really mean it. Think about it. They’ve seen how utterly mean, selfish, lack of any sense of empathy or concern for anybody else—a President who not only has horrible policies, but the way he mocks and makes fun of other people.”

In finishing, Biden thanked Clyburn again and declared to the crowd, “The Bidens love you guys.”Despite his big victory, he still faces a number of challenges. Sanders, having won two of the first four states and virtually tied in another, remains the front-runner, and his supporters aren’t going anywhere. And even after Steyer’s exit, there are four candidates vying for the non-Sanders vote, with the presence of Michael Bloomberg presenting a particular problem for Biden. In the past couple of months, the former mayor of New York has spent ungodly sums of money advertising all across the Super Tuesday map. He could take moderate voters from the former Vice-President everywhere, but particularly in a number of Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina—where the Biden camp is hoping to blunt Sanders’s advantage out West.

In an ideal world for Biden, Bloomberg would drop out of the race before Super Tuesday and throw his support behind him, but on Saturday night Bloomberg’s aides rejected that idea to reporters. (Bloomberg was not on the ballot in South Carolina.) For now, Biden can do little about Bloomberg. All he could do on Saturday was win big in South Carolina and then give a memorable speech. He managed both, and shortly after he left the stage in Columbia one of his erstwhile opponents, Andrew Yang, who is now a commentator on CNN, paid him a compliment. “That was the best I’ve ever seen him,” Yang said.

What Katherine Johnson Means to Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space.

Two years after I joined NASA in 1987, I was preparing for a trip to Brazil to help the United States Information Service celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The souvenir posters I would give out referred to the “first American men on the moon.” I suggested it would be more appropriate if they read “first humans on the moon.”

A male astronaut sneered at the idea and said that it had been “men who landed on the moon.”

“But it was women who helped put them there!” I pushed back.

I was referring to the countless generations of women who have done so much to support human achievements but have gone unrecognized.

Even though I was soon to become the first woman of color who went to space, at that time I did not know of the mathematician Katherine Johnson, who died on Monday at the age of 101, or of the crucial calculations she made for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

It would have put such a fierce smile on my face had I known about Katherine Johnson, her colleagues Mary Jackson and Jackie Vaughn and the other women mathematicians at NASA when I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. I always assumed that I would go into space, even though the United States had no astronauts who were women or of color at the time. I could see on TV that the mission control rooms were filled with white men. Even at 8, 9 or 10 years old, I was sure that the picture misrepresented the capabilities women and I possessed.

Though I majored in African and African-American studies as well as chemical engineering at Stanford, when I joined the NASA astronaut corps I only knew vaguely of some African-American women at NASA and in aviation. I knew of African-American men and white women who were science and exploration legends. Yet I was unfamiliar with Bessie Coleman, who became the first black woman in the world to get a pilot’s license in 1921; or Willa Brown, an African-American and the first U.S. woman to get both a pilot’s and a mechanic’s license and who lobbied the government to integrate the Army Air Corps. That helped lead to the establishment of the Tuskegee Airmen, a number of whom she trained.

It fortified me to get to know and work with Christine Darden, Patricia Cowings and other women scientists, engineers and mathematicians of all ethnicities who worked at NASA centers throughout the nation.

I am so pleased the book and movie “Hidden Figures” allowed the world to meet and celebrate Katherine Johnson and her colleagues.

Katherine Johnson was a revelation. An inspiration. But she was not a “one-off” to be put on a shelf and admired for her singular genius. She was representative of the deep well of talent and potential that is so often buried by lack of opportunity, access, exposure and expectation for women and particularly women of color in science and technical fields.

She was a beacon who heralded the contributions made by women that were hidden and stymied by the deep institutional and societal bias that accredits achievements to white men, deemed by society to be the unique holders of genius.

Johnson today is a balm for the discomfort that arises when you stand up in a crowd — a crowd that doubts your capabilities due only to your gender or race — and press a point, disagree with a widely held premise or challenge the sugar coating of facts meant to make the powerful feel better while disregarding the less powerful, who need the truth revealed.

I have been working with a group of experts to understand what is needed to achieve the equitable participation and leadership of women in STEM fields. The insight may be uncomfortable for some allies, because effective, lasting solutions demand profound change in core beliefs and behaviors.

The changes require the dismantling of a gantlet: of persistent bias, obstacles and actions that block women’s entry or push them out. It is a gantlet that has gone unacknowledged even decades after Katherine Johnson’s accomplishments at NASA. Organizations value women for their work when it aligns with the organization’s traditional perspectives; but they fall back on exclusionary behavior when new, diverse perspectives are generated or required.

Women have continued to advance within NASA — Peggy Whitson is the American astronaut who has spent the most time in space. In October, a pair of female astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, walked in space together.

Even great organizations may be blind to persistent intersectional bias that treats African-American women so differently. As I testified before the House space and science committee in May, there have been just six African-American women astronauts; three of them have flown in space. It is confounding that of 338 NASA astronauts, two of these African-American women, of stellar accomplishments and tenures of over 10 years each, are the only American astronauts who have been denied or pulled from a spaceflight assignment without any official explanation.

While I did not meet Katherine Johnson, when I channel her, I am jazzed. Katherine Johnson is the shining example. Through her I see the possibilities when the full scope of human experience, talent and perspectives are engaged to address the challenges and opportunities to improve life on Earth for all and push the limits of our knowledge.

Doonesbury — I’m confused.